The Palestinian who won’t give up on the power of nonviolence

At the end of 2000, as the Second Intifada was beginning to spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Professor Meir Amor sat down to speak with Dr. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian expert on nonviolent resistance. Fifteen years later, the two met once again to talk about nonviolence, growing religious fundamentalism, gender equality, Palestinian refugees and Jews from Arab countries. This interview will be published in Peace Magazine in January 2015.

By Meir Amor

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Meir Amor: About 15 years ago you and I had a discussion published in Peace Magazine. The editors think it’s a good opportunity to have another one. So let me ask you: Does your approach to nonviolence have a religious basis? Do Jewish or Muslim religious authorities consider it compatible with their teachings?

Mubarak Awad: Personally, I do it from a Christian perspective. For me, it’s time for us all to learn not to kill or destroy. But I did not push that belief on any Israelis or any Muslims. However, I did study Islam and nonviolence a lot, and I thought it would be great to have a Muslim who was interested in nonviolence so we could have a strong campaign. At that time I was interested in a fellow by the name of Faisal Husseini, a great Muslim who believed in nonviolence. I bought a lot of books about a Muslim who had been with Gandhi—Abdul Ghaffer Khan, who said that Islam is a nonviolent religion.

Mubarak Awad. (photo courtesy of Meir Amor)

I did this because the majority of Palestinians are Muslim. We held conferences studying Islam and nonviolence, discussing what jihad really means and Sufism in Islam. Sufis are like the Quakers in Christianity. There are many Sufis in Islam who accept the challenge of nonviolence. It’s a big struggle for them—not only between the Palestinians and Israelis or Arabs and Israelis, but also between themselves, for them to be nonviolent at home and active in nonviolence in their community. They can see that we human beings have brains, not just guns, and can resolve any conflict, however big, by debating, by forgiveness, by conciliation.

But in the past 20 years the world has moved toward radical religion in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. That has allowed a minority within each religion to begin dictating what religion means in a fundamentalist way. Many Muslims want to go back to a caliphate or to Mohammed. Some of them want to be more fundamentalist or more conservative.

Amor: Does conservative also means opposing nonviolence?

Awad: Yes. Being radical, insisting that Islam has to be exactly like the time of Mohammed, discriminating against women and against others who don’t believe in their tradition. They see killing as an honor instead of using an ethical or secular way of discussing issues within civil society.

Amor: Nonviolence runs into trouble, not only with the religious authorities, but with existing political institutions. In Israel I’ve been advocating refusal to serve in the occupied territories, but it is only a tiny group of people who actually do that. And within the Palestinian community too, there is political opposition to nonviolence.

Awad: Yes. To be fair to the Palestinians, nonviolent activities have increased over the past 20 years, especially regarding the separation wall. Nearly every Friday a group comes—Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals. They come and protest about the wall. But this nonviolence is by individuals. We don’t see thousands or millions of people coming together for it. We haven’t recognized the strength of nonviolence by a majority of the people who are willing to sacrifice.

Amor: Why is that? Why is it hard for Palestinians and Israelis to accept the option of nonviolence?

Awad: Because they don’t see it as a way of life, or think that the government will listen to them and make changes. Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments are stuck in their way of thinking. Both of them think it is “not the right time” for it. And they both think nonviolence is a weakness.

Amor: When it comes to individuals, it seems that your approach to nonviolence is based on cooperation between “enemies”—that nonviolence requires a courageous, humanistic approach to cooperation across the lines, not only within your group.

Awad: Right. Look at what has happened. The Soviet Union is gone—nonviolently. We had the problem with South Africa; it’s gone—nonviolently. We had the Berlin Wall. It’s gone—nonviolently. We had the Catholic and Protestant fights in Northern Ireland. It’s gone—nonviolently. We had the civil rights movement against segregation in the United States. There are still difficulties in it but it’s gone. We have equal rights. So with any conflict, a time will come for it to solve itself. The question is how we can push it to solve itself without a lot of killing in the meantime. To have less people killed, fewer refugees, widows, and orphans.

Amor: But it is hard to transform a person from perceiving another as an enemy into perceiving him as cooperative. How do you do this?

Awad: A big example of that transformation is in Israel. Anybody who goes to Haifa can see that the Israelis and Palestinians live together with each other. They have Palestinian and Israeli policemen, judges, schools, everything. It’s a small area but it works. Unfortunately, it cannot work in Jerusalem because each religion there says: “God is on our side. God is ours, not theirs, and we have to ask our God to destroy them.” In Haifa they don’t have that notion, so it can happen.

Amor: I agree. I taught for two years at Haifa. I used to write in journals that Haifa University is the most Israeli-Palestinian university you can find. Half of my students were Palestinian (Israelis) and we had to understand the sensitivities.

AWAD: I gave two lectures at Haifa University and they were full of students. I was impressed with them. They did not ask the weird questions that we often hear from both sides. They think in a positive way about how to live together. It was a great experience for me.

AMOR: You have written that “nonviolence is non-acceptance of the authority of the subjugator.” You said that there is a need to overcome the fear of the subjugator. How do you teach political courage?

AWAD: I have recently been speaking with the leadership of Hamas about why Hamas has refused nonviolence. It has to do with ethics, with human rights, and how they could approach the international community. For example, a Palestinian went to a synagogue in Jerusalem just a few weeks ago and killed five people. It would be good for Hamas to say, “We will not accept that.” That would help Hamas’s image with the international, Jewish, and Arab communities. Say that they are not interested in this killing—that there are other ways of dealing with problems.

Palestinians, international and Israeli activists demonstrate against the separation barrier and the occupation in the West Bank village of Bil'in, October 17, 2014. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/